Yasmin Alibhai Brown on the reactionary nature of the full veil

September 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm (capitulation, Human rights, Islam, islamism, liberation, misogyny, multiculturalism, posted by JD, relativism, religion, religious right, secularism, women)

We haven’t always agreed with Yasmin Alibhai Brown, but her column in today’s Independent is an honourable and quite brave statement of principle that needs to be thrown in the face of relativist/”multicultural” (sic) idiots and religious reactionaries everywhere:

.niqab anne 1

Fully veiled women hinder progressive Islam
Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument

First a British judge, then dedicated educationalists running a British college have been defeated by the aggressive guerrilla army of Muslim Salafists and their misguided allies. At Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Peter Murphy ordered a 21-year-old, veiled defendant to show her face. The accused had been charged with witness intimidation and pleaded not guilty. Whatever the results of that case, she and her supporters certainly intimidated the judge, who backed down so the trial could proceed.

Birmingham Metropolitan College was similarly cowed and had to reverse a directive forbidding students from covering their faces. One hooded lady crowdsourced a protest against the college. Some overexcited student union members, Muslim objectors and online petitioners have forced a U-turn. Shabana Mahmood, MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, welcomed the capitulation. Happy days. Muslim women can now to go to courts and college in shrouds.

That all-covering gown, that headscarf, that face mask – all affirm and reinforce the belief that women are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females sending out those messages about themselves?

Some think they are outsmarting anxious Western institutions by covering up, winning dispiriting culture wars which will give them no advantage in our fast moving world. Young women in niqabs are either testing the state as teenagers do their parents or think their garb is political action – but for what? Many women, mothers in particular, have been brainwashed by proselytisers who want to spread conservative Islamic worship across Europe and North America. They are well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

And then there are those vacuous females who argue that it is their right to be objectified, that they must be allowed to live as invisible creatures. I don’t know which of these dubious forces prevailed in the examples above. But I do know that this trend is growing fast and cannot just be “tolerated” as a minority tendency, just one of many choices people make.

Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument. I have written hundreds of times about the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Muslims, and other minorities. It isn’t easy being a Muslim anywhere in the world – not in Muslim lands or the West. But when Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers, anti-racists and egalitarians have an absolute duty to engage with them critically and in good faith. I know frank engagement is avoided because it gives succour to the EDL, BNP, neocons and manic anti-Muslim atheists. I, too, have to think hard before penning columns like this one. In the end though, I don’t think we should abdicate these grave responsibilities because so much is at stake.

The woman before the judge must know that she or others like her will never be judges or barristers. Will she make her daughters do the same? The system wasn’t picking on her – a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet. And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine? She denies herself jobs for the sake of what? They keep apart from fellow Britons by withholding proper human interactions. It’s not right or fair.

None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Some branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are directed always to accept the rules of the countries we live in and their institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.

This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in Islamic countries. The clothes symbolize an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy and gender equality. Malala Yousafzai doesn’t hide her determined face. Nor do our female Muslim MPs and peers or civil rights lawyers.

Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an “inclusive mosque” initiative, with pop-up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straights, humanists and modernists can pray together. Many others are trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.

Islamic zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory.

NB: since this article was written, the judge in the (alleged) witness intimidation case has ruled that the accused woman must remove her veil while giving evidence and (presumably) while under cross-examination: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/16/muslims-woman-must-remove-veil-evidence_n_3933773.html?utm_hp_ref=uk


  1. ted edwards said,

    As a male non muslim and someone who is spiritual rather than religious I totally agree with Yasmins comments.However I am not so sure that we should deal with the issue the way the French have.

  2. Andrew Coates said,

    Good, well said JIm.

    I thought it was excellent as well, and have said so in detail – comparing the SWP pro-niqab stand with the French left’s position,


  3. jimmy glesga said,

    ‘Progressive Islam’. At last a woman with a sense of humour.

  4. Mike Killingworth said,

    I share Ted Edwards’ identification.

    Nonetheless, there are issues that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has ducked (and I’m pretty sure she knows she’s ducked them).

    I don’t suppose that all women who wear the niqab are good theologians, but of those that are at least reasonably good ones I suspect two concerns outweigh all others:

    – first, a need to demonstrate that they are “better” Muslims than others. This motive at least should be easy for the writers of this site to comprehend, given the amount of energy they put into arguing, if not demonstrating, that they are better socialists than others;

    – second, and this is more speculative I freely acknowledge, it may be a way of woman showing her belief that she can only fully practice her religion in an Islamic country, and that the sacred duty of Muslims in the West is that of conquerors like the prophet of Islam himself.

  5. Clive said,

    It seems to me the issue of whether people should allowed to be covered in a court is entirely distinct from whether the niqab should be banned in general – and I can’t agree with Andrew (or ‘the French Left’) about this. I really don’t see how, outside quite specific circumstances, the state can be allowed to tell people what they can and can’t wear – whatever one might think of people’s choices.

    Moreover, I’m sure that in a very large number of cases, if those women who currently wear the niqab were banned by law from doing so, their husbands/fathers simply wouldn’t allow them out of the house *at all*.

    • s4r4hbrown said,

      I agree with the first points you make – there may be quite a few contexts (mostly professional, and definitely in court) where the freedom to wear a niqab is trumped by other considerations, but I think banning is OTT – and possibly counterproductive. Though I’m not completely sure about the logic of your last point, as an argument against the ban, which is not to say it may not be true in some cases.

  6. james L davis said,

    what folks wear are not wear is there bisness butt when You get a gig there are Dress codes! all religions are tolerant until they get Majority are sizable minority then its a big Fuss

  7. Rosie B said,

    Groan! The niqab has reared its ugly head again. Here’s a piece that covers all the arguments for and against:-


    I would guess every time this debate comes up that some harmless female, whether swaddled or just scarfed, gets some thug snatching at her head gear.

    I’m with Clive. I detest the niqab for every reason in the book but can’t see how it should be banned in public spaces, though work places, courts of law, schools etc can set their own rules.. I doubt if the police want to get into the business of arresting draped women who are unlikely to be committing other crimes.

    The only time I’ve engaged with a slot-starer was at the Syrian-Jordan border, where it is a more normal garment than in the West and she was a nice middle-class lady travelling in the same taxi who was as friendly as she could be, considering neither of us spoke the other’s language.

  8. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Loath as I am to link to anything at Progress Stephen Bush’s piece is actually worth a read:

    I went to a school that was majority Muslim. I also went to a school that banned the burka.

    Unlike in Birmingham, where the Birmingham Metropolitan College was recently forced to undo its explicit ban, my school banned the veil through inference; the uniform code was held up as strictly non-negotiable, and included a shalwar khameez and a headscarf in school colours, but no niqab.

    Was that oppression? Certainly, the inescapable backdrop of my school years was of vanishing women. Form classes that had been gender-balanced at Year 7 had become male-dominated by Year 11. Girls disappeared, to single-sex schools and to the private sector. Would a veil in school colours have kept more girls at my school? I don’t know.

    Certainly I know that it proves that enforcing any kind of ban on the ‘full veil’ or burka would be impossible, even if it were desirable. I am definitely dubious about members of parliament who think that food banks are the business of private citizens but what women wear is a matter of state, and I know a thin pretext for sectarianism when I see one.

    But I’ve also – three years at university aside – lived and worked in east London my entire life, and I can’t, in all honesty, claim that the burka isn’t a bad thing for women. I have seen it in libraries or parents’ evenings, worn by a silent woman, with either a child or a husband or a translator. I’ve worked in shops and served women – again mute – behind cloth, often watched by a male escort. In that time, I’ve counted women in headscarves among my friends, colleagues and managers, but I’ve never worked with a woman in niqab.

    I’ve never seen a woman in the full veil at the cinema, or a restaurant, or a gig, or the theatre. The only leisure activities I’ve seen veiled women involved in is visiting the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and I’m not convinced that child-rearing can ever plausibly be described as ‘leisure’. And neither you nor I will see a woman in the full veil address the conference floor next week.

    Whether the niqab is a cause of women’s non-appearance, or whether both it and their absence are each consequences of the a world view that discourages appearing in public, when I read the words of women who have chosen the burka, I can’t help but feel the same level of scepticism I do when a self-made man shills for small-state Conservatism. That may be his reality; but it feels so irreconcilable with mine that I can’t quite accept it. The lived truth of the girls I grew up with who ended up wearing it and the women I see wearing it now is that the burka closes down opportunity.

    But just because I dislike something or it makes me feel uncomfortable isn’t a reason to ban it. Just because I suspect that many of the ‘free choices’ to wear the burka are anything but free doesn’t mean that I have to right to reduce choice still further. I suspect that many of the supporters of a burka ban know all this, and know, too, that a ban would, rather than freeing anyone, simply drive veiled women indoors, where we wouldn’t see them, and they couldn’t make us feel uncomfortable any more.

    This is Britain, yes. We wear what we want, yes. But we shouldn’t pretend that guaranteeing a society where most wear what they want also means protecting a society where some women wear what they’re told. We might not be able to do anything about it. But it should make us uncomfortable, nevertheless.


    • Rosie B said,

      Good points.

      Here’s a piece in the New Statesman.


      Rather a rosy picture of gutsy converts and confident women choosing to wear a niqab. As someone points out in the comments, the author hasn’t spoken to, say, women in forced marriages intimidated by their husbands into dressing like that.

      There is another comment is from a niqab wearer:-

      “I also travel and so remove the niqab for security reasons and generally wherever I’m asked (in banks etc). I do get regular abuse in the streets, thankfully it’s never been physical up till now but whenever we get a bashing in the media it goes up 10x so I’m going to avoid going out with the kids for a couple of weeks and let my husband do it instead. We as muslim women do not believe you are trying to help us, further more we are not asking for your help. If I wanted to take it off, I’m free to. So why not just live and let live?”

      We can do without a debate on the niqab especially what’s on the cover of Sun as this encourages hostility towards niqab and hijab wearers.

      Oh – and those who want to make a security issue of that – there hasn’t been a crime wave of burkahed burglars. If women in burkhas took to mugging you could make a security argument – but no-one fears a woman in a burkha as they would a bloke in a balaclava.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Here’s the thing: France has ‘banned’ (at least at a symbolic level) the ‘Burqa’ for two and half years now.

        Has no sociologist actually reported objectively on the consequences of this?

        Have niqabs really disappeared from the streets of Muslim banlieus?

        Are their wearers now in fact condemned (it must be said in most cases by themselves) to an even deeper imprisonment in their own homes?

        Has there been an upsurge in Muslim feminism or just a toxic deepening of ressentiment against the West and its values.

        Have (as in fact a quick googling would suggest) more leftist demonstrators (or just annoying hipsters) been arrested for wearing balaclavas or V-for-Vendetta masks or keffiyehs worn the wrong way than Muslim women?

        Being a non-French speaker I have no idea what the answer is to these questions are (perhaps Coatesy might take this on as a project?).

        But I am sure someone must be gathering data and we have here an actual social experiment which could tell us whether there is in fact any point at all in taking such symbolic actions.

  9. Jim Denham said,

    I see that Salma Yaqoob is quoted in today’s Graun G2, saying:

    “How many national debates have we already had on this? (…)
    “It just seems an easy distraction for our politicians. I mean really? Is this the biggest issue we face in the UK right now? I’m a little cynical when politicians call for a national debate that has already happened many times over.”


    Ms Yaqoob may well be right about that. But one of my earliest memories of her was about ten years ago, as an invited speaker at Birmingham Trades Council, supported by her then-allies in the SWP/Respect and Socialist Action, raising the non-existent threat to the right to wear a niqab and calling for a campaign on the issue…

    …in reality, it was clearly a campaign in *support* of the niqab.

    Maybe she’s changed her position since then. If so, that’s welcome.

  10. jimmy glesga said,

    It is not about changing position but pretending to do so. Islam is a fascist dictatorship and should be banned just like the Papist child molesters. Aff wae the Burka and the Mitre.

  11. finbar said,

    Not all Muslims are like that lass.The Musim religion like all religions get the fanatic.Could say,whats wrong with my eyes,you!ve got my pin number.

    How long has it taken for us England to learn that you have to cover yourself in the sun.Lived with next door Muslim,not full blown, your not one of us,just people with a religion that for some is weird.Five times a day on your knees,lucky if they get me once a week.

    You wish my pin number.

  12. Jim Denham said,

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